Award-winning children’s book illustrator R. Gregory Christie launched a Kickstarter campaign this month for a children’s bookstore and arts literacy center concept. Opening at the beginning of April in Decatur, Ga.’s North DeKalb Mall, Christie's venture will be called GAS Art Gifts (GAS is an acronym for Gregarious Art Statements). Christie is seeking nearly $23,000 to turn a raw space in one of Atlanta's oldest shopping centers into a cutting-edge showroom for books and hand-made gifts, as well as a learning center where kids and parents can learn any number of practical artistic skills—from quiltmaking to bookbinding to watercolors – from Christie and his friends in the local arts scene.
On his way to Oakley Elementary for an after-school arts program, Christie told PW, “A jewelry maker who had a kiosk [in North DeKalb Mall] wanted something for Black History Month, so I came in,” with books and posters in tow. “The response was amazing. At this point it was a 30-and-up crowd who were interested in literacy and the arts. During that month I was thinking, how can I reach these teenagers and young parents? I thought, rather than a simple bookstore, I could call all my friends and colleagues and make it more of a space that showcases books and will actually get people to learn how to make art all kinds of tangible, handmade crafts.”
Christie has been illustrating children’s books since 1996, when he took a gig illustrating a volume of children’s poetry called The Palm of My Heart. For that, he won the first of his three Coretta Scott King Illustrator Awards. Almost 30 books later, the New Jersey-born artist has decided he wants to “start a new chapter in my life where I’m not just making books, but out there and actually showing people you can do it. You can make and create things, you don’t have to buy it from corporations – especially when it’s your culture that invented it.”
For almost as long as he’s been involved in children’s books, Christie has been visiting schools and manning street fairs not just to promote his work, but to demystify it: “A lot of people have an inner artist – they might appreciate art and go to museums but they don’t think they can do it. I want to have workshops where people can try these things out, ultimately to make things and maybe even sell them online or start a business.”
When he moved to Decatur for family reasons, Christie didn’t plan to stay, but felt the opportunity to open this store was too good to pass up: “A lot of people don’t go to the mall anymore, but it’s under new management and they are very eager to get this literacy program off the ground. They have as much passion as reaching the public as I do.”
The fiscal realities of opening a small business, and his aspirations for the store, prompted Christie to seek sponsorship. “At this time I’m pretty much tapped out,” Christie said, who has poured his own money into licensing, materials and marketing. “I’m just waiting for some royalties to come in and maybe we can put some more things together.” Christie’s goal is to create a “stunning, slick space” that will draw kids just as readily as the shoe store: “What I notice, when you go into a mall, you see all these things on pedestals, shoes and shirts, all lit up. Kids think that these sneakers represent them, but that’s just for a moment, until they get dirty or the soles run out. The things I’m promoting will stay in their mind, history they can be proud of and knowledge they can use.”
Without the money to hire a crew, the renovation work is all Christie’s own. If the Kickstarter campaign doesn’t come through (projects on Kickstarter only get funded if they raise a set amount of cash, in this case $22,750), Christie says he’ll do the work piecemeal, opening with “gym tables and signs, with books out and art up.” Christie himself will be in the middle of it all, seven days a week, working from the oversized, paint-smeared wooden table he’s been using for years.
As of press time, Christie has raised $2,375 from 31 different donors, one of whom pledged $500: “It’s amazing to me that people believe in me and this project.”
Of course, Christie’s other goal is to sell his work, some of which he’s seen go out of print or dumped into remainder bins. “I don’t want to create books for shelves," he stated. "I want them in the hands of a child who can use them. “But the main thing I would really love is for people to learn,” he said. “For people to stop buying things that your grandmother used to make.”
Whether Christie’s Kickstarter funding comes through or not, doors will open the first week of April, though fans can find him there already: “If they come by now they will see me in my construction and wall-painting clothes. I’ll be in the mall near the Avon counter, store section 3030.”
If you're unable to make the trip to North DeKalb Mall anytime soon, you can also view Christie's work on his Web site.